Five tips for planning training sessions that actually work

Effective training begins with clear objectives, a logical outline, an understanding of what your audience needs -- and a solid plan.

Whether you are hosting a training session on a topic that your staff is interested in or one that's likely to put them to sleep, there are a number of things you can do to make the content -- and the delivery -- as fresh and relevant as possible.

1: Think it all through

Training is at the heart of what many people do in the tech realm. Think about it. When you write about process, you are essentially capturing the essentials of a technique and training the reader how to do it. When you demonstrate a new product, you are teaching others what's possible with that tool and showing them the best ways to use it. When you are charged with training a group on a specific task, it's helpful to write out an outline of key points you need to cover.

Consider the experience level of your audience and, if necessary, adjust your topics so they touch on what's needed for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users. Leave plenty of time at the end for questions and work in a good case study or two -- fun and realistic examples -- if you can. Then, when you're happy with your plan for training, share it with a couple of your colleagues and ask for their feedback. You're sure to get at least a few good suggestions you might not have thought of on your own.

2: Choose the right tools for delivery

There are lots of ways to offer training these days, and many of those methods don't require that you be in the same room with the people you're training. Oh, you might be virtually present through a webcam or telephone. But in addition to the person-at-the-front-of-the-room-training, you can package your training as a video and offer it online, use courseware like Moodle or Blackboard, or use PowerPoint to email a training presentation to all the new staff members who need to see it. You could use LiveMeeting or host the whole thing virtually, sharing your desktop and sketching on a whiteboard in Lync Online (Figure A).

Figure A

You can deliver training using virtual meeting tools like Lync Online.

Determine the right approach for your training by asking how participants will best learn about this topic. Do they need to see you in person so you can demonstrate what you're teaching and they can work collaboratively as they learn? Can this training be presented as a self-directed course that participants can complete online when they have the time? Do you need to stretch the training out over a few weeks so that attendees can learn on their own between sessions? Let the type of training and the needs of your audience dictate the right vehicle for the training. If you find halfway through your first session that it isn't working as you'd hoped, adjust your approach and experiment until you find something that works best for that particular group.

3: Mix it up with multiple media

Think back to the last training you attended. How did you feel about it? What worked and what didn't -- and why do you think that is? Chances are if you sat through an hour-long series of bullet points, you retained little of the information you heard that day. If you want your attendees to remember what you're presenting, keep them awake by mixing up the media in your presentation. You might lead with a little intro music, begin with a story, show a short video clip, walk them through a few slides of a presentation, and then have an activity planned that involves the audience members. For the second half, do the opposite, returning to the presentation, finishing the video clip, and wrapping up with the end of the story you started at the beginning. Changing the delivery helps participants keep pace with you, reinforces their learning, and prevents you from droning on reading bullet point after bullet point.

4: Prepare takeaways

Whatever your delivery vehicle of choice -- over the Web, in person, by PowerPoint, or via video -- think about what you'd like your trainees to have in their hands when they're on their own. You might want to create handouts with small miniature images of the slides, along with any note text you've added. Or you could prepare a training outline in Word that you distribute to attendees before the event begins. You might also include the names of those who helped prepare the presentation and mention your departmental sponsors, as well. And if you'd like to save it as a PDF to make it available on the Web (or in a training kit later), all the better. Be creative with the types of information you want participants to take with them when the training is over and be sure to put your Web site or email address on anything you want trainees to connect back to you.

5: Be ready with assessments

Finally, when all is said and done, be sure you give participants a way to provide you with feedback so that (1) they can reflect on what they learned from the training and (2) you can use the information to improve your training sessions in the future. You might want to use a Web-based tool, like Survey Monkey, to create a survey participants can respond to. Or you could create a simple Word form (or use InfoPath for the same process) to gather the information you seek. Depending on the nature of your audience, you may get anything from glowing reports to snarky comments, but try to take it all with a grain of salt and listen for the following key items:

  • Did participants identify any places in your presentation where they felt confused?
  • Do trainees know clearly what to do next?
  • Did people point out spots where your presentation "lost" them or put them to sleep?

Listen for the kind of feedback that will help your presentation go more smoothly next time. Then incorporate the suggestions so your next set of trainees can benefit.